SU Students and Chaplain Grow Flax at Local Garden

By Christine Edgeworth ’15   

Founded in 1970 and entirely run by volunteers, the Morningside Community Garden is one of the oldest gardens in the city of Syracuse. Located walking-distance from campus at the intersection of Lancaster and Broad Streets just a few blocks northeast of SU, the garden is home to over 50 plots, any of which Syracuse residents may apply to cultivate for a suggested minimum donation of just $10/season.

About 4 years ago, SU’s Lutheran Chaplain, Gail Riina, bought two of those plots—one for personal use and the other for SU students to cultivate through the Lutheran Campus Ministry’s STEP Center. The STEP Center is an interfaith service-learning project that encourages students to “step into another’s world to make a difference.” With this plot, Riina hoped to connect SU students to the garden and encourage them to explore the advantages of urban gardening.

While visiting the Syracuse Center of Excellence in 2010, Riina saw a model display of the city of Syracuse with sustainable design features, one of which was growing flax in empty city lots. Since then, shel says she has been “inspired by the beauty of the plant and by the potential of putting together an urban project that could create new employment opportunities, beautify the city, and produce sustainable clothing, creams, and beauty products made of flax.” As it turns out, flax is one of the most sustainable fibers on the market—it’s extremely durable, requires just a tiny fraction of the water that it takes to grow cotton, and actually grows better without pesticides.

Since 2010, Chaplain Riina has enlisted the help of 10 students on average each summer to get the flax garden up and flourishing. The first year students planted yellow and brown flax and both proved to grow just fine. However, the following year students ran into the problem of deer eating and sleeping on their plot. Fortunately, they were able to put a fence up last year that has since prevented the deer from tampering with the flax.

While the flax garden has been a summer project to date, Chaplain Riina is now planning to reach out to students willing to plant the crop in April since flax grows best in cooler conditions. She hopes to integrate the garden into a hands-on, interdisciplinary workshop, potentially for class credit, where students would research optimal growing conditions, prepare the plot, plant the flax, run a market analysis of flax products, and then propose a business model for how the harvest could be used in the production of sustainable, eco-friendly products.

Chaplain Riina ’s dream is to see flax gardens pop up all over the city, but it all starts right here with SU students getting on board with the flax garden at the Morningside Community Garden.

If you’re interested in getting involved with the flax project or in having your own plot at the garden, e-mail Chaplain Riina at lutheran@syr.edu.